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Escaping Blocks 


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Escaping Blocks 

Written By: Charles Piatt 


Chisel with 1 /2 n or 3 / 4 " blade (1) 

Electric drill (1) 

Frame clamps (optional) (1) 

These will make it much easier to glue 

the mitered corners of the box. 

Pliers (1) 

Power sander (optional) (1) 

A belt sander or a handheld orbital 

sander will greatly reduce your sanding 


Router bit (optional) (1) 
Using a router bit with your drill is the 
easiest way to round the edges of the 
holes in the blocks, but a large 
countersink will do. 


You can use a handsaw, but a radial arm 

saw will make clean and precise miter 


Side cutters capable of chopping the 


• oak board ( 1 ) 

Board sold as 6" wide is actually 5V2" 
wide, but it should be genuinely 1 A " 
thick. Take a measure with you to the 
store, to check. 

• pine lumber (1) 

Actual size will be 1 1 /2"x3 1 / 2 ". 

• Wire nails ((1 packet)) 

• Brass hinges (3) 

Small hinges are sometimes hard to find. 
They should be no less than 9/16" and 
no more than 1 1/16" wide when open, 
and should be packaged with their own 

• Small can of wood sealer (1) 

Poly ur ethane is acceptable if it has a 
matte finish. 

• Can of spray lacquer (1) 

• Spray paints (6) 

• Foam paint brushes (2) 

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Escaping Blocks 

nai ^ s v U " • Driveway marker stake (1) 

■ • Quick-set epoxy glue (1) 
• Sandpaper (1) 


Imagine a handsome lacquered oak box with a lid mounted on brass hinges. The magician 
opens the box to reveal a row of 6 brightly painted, rainbow-colored wooden blocks nestled 
snugly inside. A long, rigid spike passes through a hole at one end of the box, through holes 
in the centers of the blocks, and out through another hole at the opposite end of the box. 
When the magician turns the box upside down, the spike holds the blocks securely in place. 

The magician pulls the spike out, and all the blocks fall onto the table. He invites a member 
of the audience to inspect everything, then asks the volunteer to name his favorite 2 colors 
of any of the blocks. 

The magician stacks the blocks back in the box, closes the lid, and replaces the spike, 
pushing it from end to end. Holes in the lid reveal that the blocks still appear to be lined up in 
a row, as they were before. Yet when the magician raps twice on the lid with his knuckles 
and turns the box upside down, the 2 blocks that the volunteer selected fall out, while the 
other 4 remain inside, still impaled on the spike. How did the chosen blocks escape? 

How It's Done 

The Escaping Blocks trick is many decades old but still can be a source of fascination and 
amazement to anyone who hasn't seen it before. 

The secret is simple. When the magician puts the blocks back into the box, he secretly turns 
2 of them so that they lie to either side of the spike instead of being pierced by it. The lid 
conceals this act from the audience, but because we all saw the blocks stacked in an 
orderly row initially, our minds encourage us to imagine that we saw them go back into the 
box in exactly the same way that they came out. Thus, we are fooled by our expectations, 
and the cunningly arranged holes in the lid help to confirm what we believe to be true. 

Remaking the Trick 

This trick is still available in magic kits, but has suffered a terrible degradation in quality 

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Escaping Blocks 

over the years. Instead of lacquered oak, the box is made from thin plastic, and has been 
downsized to less than 2" long. The blocks are the size of Chiclets, and they aren't very 
solid. The spike is barely more than a plastic toothpick. 

I decided to re-create the original version using classic materials, and to construct the box 
on a scale that would enable a performance in front of an audience of 20 or more. In return 
for about $25 in consumables and a pleasant day in your workshop, 

you too can have your own Escaping Blocks, and they will be sufficiently durable to last for 
many decades, creating a renewed sense of wonder in each new generation that encounters 
them for the first time. 


To build the box, I found some strips of oak, 6" wide and W thick, in the hardwood section of 
my local home improvement store. For the blocks, I wanted softer wood that would be easy 
to shape, so I bought a plain old 2x4 pine stud and cut some square sections from one end. 

For the rod, I found a "driveway marker" — a solid plastic, orange stake, Vi" in diameter and 
pointed at one end. I could have used a wooden dowel, but the driveway marker was 
stronger, with a shiny finish that lets it slide easily through holes in the blocks. 


The geometry of this trick is crucial. When the magician secretly turns 2 of the blocks 
sideways, they must still fit in the box while allowing a gap just wide enough for the stake to 
slide between them. I found that the thickness-to-width ratio of each block should be about 
3:7. Since a 2x4 stud is actually 1 1 /2 n x3 1 /2 n , it's ideal for the job. 

If you want to make a smaller version of the trick, you can scale it proportionally, but 
remember to add a thin space between the blocks and the box so that they don't fit too 
tightly. Otherwise, they won't fall out when they're supposed to. In my version I allowed a 
total wiggle room of Vi" vertically and another Vi" horizontally. 


I used epoxy to glue the mitered joints at the corners of the box, with thin nails for extra 
strength, since the box may have to withstand some abuse if kids play with it. I didn't use 
brads or finishing nails, because the slight extra width of their heads could have split the 
wood near its edges. 

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Escaping Blocks 

Instead I chose wire nails 1 V2" long, which were a nice tight fit in guide holes that I made 
with a 1/16" drill. I chopped the heads off with side cutters before pushing them in with pliers 
(a hammer might have destroyed the mitered joints before I had a chance to strengthen 
them). I used a belt sander to make the nubs of the nails flush with the wood. I sprayed the 
oak box with several coats of semigloss lacquer, then coated the blocks with a sealer before 
I colored them with spray paint. The part of the job requiring greatest precision was mounting 
the hinges so that the lid would open and close nicely. The tiny screws that came with the 
hinges were a little too long, and protruded through the lid. They, too, were made flush with 
the wood by applying a belt sander. 


After you finish your construction work, you'll want to perform the trick — but naturally you 
should restrain that impulse until you've had a chance to practice it. The most important 
moment occurs when you put the blocks back into the box. You have to rotate the center 
pair without anyone noticing, and any hesitation or awkwardness will draw attention to what 
you are doing. Practice the action in front of a mirror until you can throw the blocks into the 
box without even looking at them. 

This trick is so simple, you may feel tempted to tell people how it works. Just remember the 
great paradox of magic: everyone wants to know the secret, but if you reveal it, they may 
wish you hadn't. 

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Escaping Blocks 

Cut 6 square pieces from the pine 2x4. Each piece should measure 3 1 /2"x3 1 /2"x1 V2". Drill a 
V2" hole in the center of each. Round all the edges, preferably using a router bit on the 
center hole. 

Cut the 2 end pieces from Vi" oak, 4 1 /4" wide by 4" high. The 2 shorter edges should be 
beveled at 45 Q . Make a 3/8" hole in each piece as shown in the diagram and round its 

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Escaping Blocks 

Now cut the 2 side pieces of the box from the same oak, each measuring 10W wide by 4" 
high. Bevel the shorter edges to fit the bevels on the end pieces. 





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Finally, cut the bottom of the box from oak, 3 3 A"x9 3 A'\ and the lid of the box, 4 1 /4 n x10 1 /4 n , 
Drill V2 holes in the bottom and in the lid, spaced precisely as shown in the diagrams. 

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Escaping Blocks 

• Stack your blocks in a row, and position the pieces of oak around them. Turn the center 2 
blocks and make sure that the box will still fit. Also make sure that the driveway marker 
will slide easily through the holes in the blocks and through the end pieces of the box. 

Paint the blocks with sealer, let it dry, then spray each block with paint. You'll probably 
want to continue assembling the box, and pause to come back to the blocks and give them 
another coat of paint every hour or so, till you have sufficient coverage. 

Glue an end piece of the box to a 
side piece and hold them together 
with a pair of frame clamps for at 
least 10 minutes. Make 1/16" guide 
holes through the miter joint, snip 
the heads off your IV2" wire nails, 
and push the headless nails into 
the guide holes with pliers, to 
strengthen the joint. Add the 
remaining sides to the box, and 
then add the bottom of the box. 
You'll probably have to sand it 
slightly to fit. 

• Sand your joints to remove any excess glue and make the nubs of the nails flush with the 
wood. Remove sawdust with a damp cloth, wait 10 minutes for residual moisture to 
evaporate, then spray the box with lacquer. You'll probably need several coats. 

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Escaping Blocks 

Cut recesses for the hinges using a handsaw and a chisel. Since a chisel can be an 
extremely dangerous tool, take care never to direct it toward your hands, even when 
wearing work gloves. 

Glue 1 hinge into place so that you can make sure the lid closes accurately before the glue 
sets. Then drill 1/16" guide holes and screw all the hinges into position. Most likely the 
screws will protrude, and you'll have to sand them down. 

After that, spray the lid with lacquer, and your job is done. Allow everything to dry for at 
least 24 hours so there's no risk of the blocks sticking inside the box. 

This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 13 , page 70. 

This document was last generated on 201 2-1 1 -02 07:27:46 PM. 

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